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How to Create a Career Path for Your Staff When Advancement Isn’t Possible

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Advancement is always possible! All employees should be growing their skillsets and extending the boundaries of their technical knowledge. However, not everyone has the ability or desire to manage others, or take traditional leadership positions within a firm. And, due to size, scope, location and other factors, not all tax and accounting firms can promise its staff a higher rank or position. Still, any of these factors should not stop employees from advancing. On the contrary, savvy firms that wish to retain and engage their staff should seek to find a technical/specialty “ladder” or path for their employees.

This concept, known as the “dual career ladder,” is not necessarily new to human resources, but may be new to tax and accounting professionals. Either way, it is a powerful way to retain employees who may otherwise leave to seek an opportunity elsewhere.

In the struggle to differentiate themselves, accounting firms created the ideal environment for establishing a technical/specialty career path that can be just as rewarding and valuable as the traditional path that takes an employee “up the ladder.” Niche markets, technical service delivery and consulting offerings create the perfect opportunity for staff to become thought leaders and technical experts. In order to establish a dual path, firms need to identify the knowledge, skills and abilities required for the path, the range of skill/knowledge needed to move from an entry level to an expert level, develop job descriptions and salary ranges for each position along the path, and communicate the path clearly to employees.

Identifying the Skills and Charting the Path. When creating a path based on technical/specialty metrics, firms must consider the skills needed for a professional to be considered a thought leader or expert in the desired area, as well as how professionals on this path will bring value to the firm and its clients. If you are building a path based on a niche market, it’s not enough to be an expert in the technical accounting skills; professionals must also develop a deep, comprehensive knowledge of the industry or market segment. In order for this path to bring value, individuals on this type of track must also have the ability to market their knowledge to prospective clients and strategic partners, as well as effectively serve as a resource to others within the firm.

In order to create the path, a firm must define where the path leads and what steps it takes to get there:

  • What knowledge, skills or abilities (KSAs) should a niche or technical leader possess?
  • What training and experience is necessary for gaining the KSAs?
  • What are the competencies required at each step along the path, and how will you evaluate progress and success?

It is crucial to define the non-technical skills required for leadership on this non-traditional path. While the expectations of this type of leader are different, they must still show leadership qualities: drive, decisiveness and teamwork. Simply possessing the knowledge and applying it to the work is not enough. A leader must be able to leverage the knowledge to drive the success of the firm.

Job Description and Salary. The next step is to take the information from your planning and create job descriptions, titles and salary ranges for each career level. While you may not have the ability to promote these individuals to the next rung on the ladder, their increased KSAs should enable them to bring greater efficiency, productivity and value to your firm – and should earn them a different title and salary level. Each job description should clearly define the duties and responsibilities of the position, and also serve as a guide for job performance and advancement.

With advancement and increased contribution to the firm comes an increase in salary. Determine the range of each position. A change in position should offer a salary increase greater than what would be offered for a straight merit increase. Salary should be a reflection of the KSAs needed to perform the job and should be a measure of the value of the position within the firm and the demand in the marketplace.

Communication. Communicating the path is crucial to its success. Employees must fully understand and see value in what you created. One of the primary reasons for your efforts is to attract and retain the talent needed to meet the needs of your clients. Those professionals must understand how the program will bring greater career satisfaction and reward in order to motivate them to buy in to the process. Roll the program out to the firm as a whole, but make sure to have one-on-one conversations with those individuals who would benefit most from being on a non-traditional path. This creates the opportunity to understand and manage the employees’ expectations, assess where they fit on the new ladder system, and address any concerns.

The process of creating a dual ladder system is time consuming and challenging. In a profession where time is quite literally money, the time commitment alone may deter some from engaging in this process. Shrewd firms will recognize the ROI of such an undertaking; they understand the time and money it takes to hire and train top notch staff, and appreciate the value in retaining employees who have built relationships with their clients and colleagues. When employees have the opportunity to advance their knowledge and abilities, and feel encouraged to do so, the firm and the employee thrive.


Editor’s note: For more on talent management, check out Debbie Ames’ article “How to Find the Right Tax Talent to Build Your Growing Firm.”

Debbie Ames, PHR

Debbie Ames, PHR, is Human Resources director for Goldin Peiser & Peiser. She is responsible for recruiting and hiring new employees, working with current employees on their professional development, and working with the firm's partners on organization strategies. More from Debbie Ames, PHR

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